An assiduous glance at the history of disco reveals one of the most diverse musical rosters of any genre. There are the standouts of course: Chic; Donna Summer;Gloria Gaynor. At the very height of disco, though, there came an artist unlike any other whose exceptional talent and sexually ambiguous image embodied disco in all its grandeur. That artist was Sylvester.
Blessed with a soaring gospel-trained falsetto, his throaty delivery was rivaled in disco land only by the likes of Loleatta Holloway, or one of his backup singers Martha Wash, originally with Two Tons Of Fun. With his captivating stage presence, Sylvester performed in elaborate costumes and gowns conceived by Pat Campano (who also designed for the Supremes and the Jackson Five). One of the few openly gay artists in disco, or popular music for that matter, Sylvester was distinguishable from his contemporaries by the fact that he was a drag performer. Indeed, Sylvester was unabashedly gay and his extroverted persona bestowed upon him a multiracial, pansexual fan base.
Though Sylvester was primarily associated with disco, he performed blues, gospel, jazz, Southern rock, Northern soul and show tunes. However, a thoughtful observance of disco and its history are necessary in the proper delineation of Sylvester’s legacy. Sylvester lived disco, and in his all-too-short career, came to personify its innovations, triumphs and tragedies.
Sylvester was born Sylvester James on September 6, 1947 to an affluent black family in Los Angeles. Sylvester’s initial exposure to music came through his grandmother, Julia Morgan, who had been a revered jazz singer in the 1930's. Through her, he acquired an interest in blues and theatre. At his grandmother’s encouragement, he learned to sing at a local Pentecostal church. Exceptionally gifted and popular as a singer in his preteen years, he performed at various South Los Angeles churches, as well as statewide gospel conventions. His passion for music was augmented by his love for Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith.
Sylvester relocated to San Francisco, circa 1967. This was prior to the city’s famed status as the gay capital of the world. San Francisco, with its burgeoning art scene and hippie culture, proved to be the perfect creative base for Sylvester. He started singing in Chinatown at the Rickshaw Lounge. Creating a stage show called, "The Women of Blues", he performed as "Ruby Blue" and paid homage to Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and Bessie Smith. Sylvester became venerated throughout the Bay Area for his dead-on allusions to divas of the past, as well as his powerhouse voice.
In 1970, the Cockettes, a cross-dressing cabaret troupe notorious in the San Francisco area, invited Sylvester to school them in the finer points of gospel singing. He accepted, becoming a member himself. Sylvester eventually emerged as the Cockettes’ star attraction. He parted ways with the Cockettes in 1973 and signed on with the Hot Band. A novelty for its time, Sylvester and the Hot Band was a rock band fronted by a glamorous drag queen!
While fronting the Hot Band, Sylvester demonstrated his instrumental talents as well as his vocal prowess; he often played the piano while the band performed live gigs. The group released their self-titled debut in 1973, which is commonly referred to as "Scratch My Flower" due to the scratch n’ sniff gardenia on the cover (a reference to Billie Holiday). The material featured on "Scratch My Flower" runs the gamut from funkto blues to Southern Rock. The album contains an interesting cover of "A Whiter Shade of Pale". The group’s follow-up, "Bazaar" was released later that year.
Though "Scratch My Flower" and "Bazaar" were critically successful albums, they were commercial failures. For all the exposure and critical acclaim Sylvester had garnered fronting the Hot Band, crossover appeal was not yet his. Sylvester left the Hot Band in 1975 to begin his solo career. He decided to change up his act by auditioning a pair of backup singers. In search of uniquely beautiful, but extremely talented female singers, he auditioned Martha Wash in February of 1976. Impressed, Sylvester hired Wash on the spot. Wash, in turn, contacted her friend Izora Rhodes, whom Sylvester also hired. Wash and Rhodes had sung together in a San Francisco area gospel group known as News Of The World. They eventually became known as Two Tons Of Fun, or just Two Tons (a name coined by Rhodes). Wash and Rhodes powerful pipes proved to be the perfect counterbalance to Sylvester’s baritone-cum-falsetto. Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes would eventually become known as the Weather Girls and score the massive dance and pop hit, "It’s Raining Men".
Renowned producer Harvey Fuqua came to see Sylvester, Wash and Rhodes perform at one of their club venues. Fuqua, a founding member of the Moonglows ("Ten Commandments of Love"), was scouting talent for Fantasy records. After hearing Sylvester, Wash and Rhodes, he signed them to his Honey Records label, which was distributed by Fantasy Records. Honey/Fantasy released Sylvester’s self-titled solo debut in 1977. Its' lead off single, a cover of Ashford & Simpson’s "Over and Over", was quite successful in the U.K. England. The album also contained a song penned by Sylvester himself titled, "Down, Down, Down". Though an ambitious album, "Sylvester" failed to provide the singer with the breakthrough he deserved. It did, however, offer a glimpse of the greatness to come through his work with James "Tip" Wirrick.
Sylvester’s follow-up would succeed where his solo debut fell short thanks to a fateful meeting. While performing a venue at City Disco in 1978, Sylvester encountered Patrick Cowley. Cowley, who was the lighting technician at City Disco, happened to be a skilled synthesizer musician and an accomplished remixer. In anticipation of a follow-up to his understated debut, Sylvester had recorded a demo of a song he had co-written with James Wirrick entitled, "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)". Originally intended to be a gospel ballad, Cowley took the demo and added some synthesized color. He followed suit with "Dance (Disco Heat)". These two reworked songs would form the creative base for Sylvester’s follow-up, "Step II".
Cowley’s synthesized track proved to be the perfect musical setting for the vocals of Sylvester, Rhodes and Wash. Clubland consumed "Dance (Disco Heat)", making it anumber one dance hit in 1978. "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" followed suit, becoming not just a number one dance hit, but also Sylvester’s signature song. "Dance (Disco Heat)" and "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)", were also substantial pop hits, hitting 19 and 36 on the pop charts, respectively. Cowley, an incomparable asset to Sylvester's music, would remain his frequent collaborator.
Continuing the momentum started by "Step II", Fantasy released two more full-length recordings, "Stars" and the live album "Living Proof", in 1979. "Stars" contained a cover of the Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller standard, "I (Who Have Nothing)", which in addition to hitting 40 on the pop charts, was another dance hit for Sylvester. "Living Proof", Sylvester’s most audacious project to that point, was recorded live at the War Memorial Opera House. Backed by a twenty-eight-piece orchestra, Sylvester and Two Tons of Fun treated attendees to ballads, covers and medleys, in addition to Sylvester’s own hits. Most intriguing about the venue was the sheer range of material being performed. Sylvester covered everything from the Beatles "Blackbird" to Billie Holiday’s "Lover Man" to Barry Manilow’s "Could It Be Magic". Sylvester’s reinterpretation of Patti LaBelle’ s "You Are My Friend" was the standout of the show as it showcased the genius interplay Sylvester, Rhodes and Wash utilized in their live performances. The event culminated in Sylvester’s being awarded the keys to the city of San Francisco and March 11, 1979 being proclaimed Sylvester Day.
Although Sylvester was already an icon of gay disco, it wasn’t long before the rest of the world stood up and took notice. Sylvester received three Billboard Disco Forum awards in 1979, in addition to being awarded Best Male Disco Act from Disco International Magazine. Sylvester’s newfound stardom opened other media doors for him as well; he made his motion picture debut in the Bette Midler film "The Rose" portraying (of all things) a Supremes-inspired drag queen.
1979, though a year of prestigious accomplishments for Sylvester, portended new life- altering adversities. Patrick Cowley became mysteriously ill while on a tour of South Africa with Sylvester and crew. Cowley’s symptoms were initially dismissed as being stress-related, or a poor reaction to the local food. However, Cowley’s mystery illness foreshadowed a scourge that would devastate the core of Sylvester’s world, as well as his own. Also, though "Living Proof" granted Sylvester a personal degree of artistic satisfaction, it failed in providing Honey Records' Fuqua with the desired commercial impact. Fuqua decided to play a more hands-on role in Sylvester’s musical output. This resulted in the elimination of many of the brilliant elements of "Step II" "Stars" and "Living Proof" from Sylvester’s future Fantasy releases. Most notably, Cowley, Rhodes and Wash were absent from subsequent Fantasy releases by Sylvester. A singer named Jeanie Tracy replaced Two Tons, who were at this point recording albums for Fantasy themselves.
"Sell My Soul", released in 1980, was an artistic and commercial failure. While still a disco record, the absence of Cowley, Wash and Rhodes deprived the album of the edge Sylvester had enjoyed on his previous Fantasy albums. Even more disconcerting was the album’s cover photo, which was an obvious attempt to downplay Sylvester’s androgynous image. The cover photo shows a rather unadorned, unsmiling Sylvester whose visage is virtually devoid of make-up.
Sylvester’s last full-length recording for Fantasy, "Too Hot To Sleep" was a straight- ahead R&B album that was more consistent with Northern Soul than disco. It is on "Too Hot…" that Sylvester’s ambitions as a soul singer were fully realized. The album contained no disco and fully delivered on the soul sound that Sylvester had hinted at on "Living Proof". "Too Hot To Sleep" consisted entirely of ballads and mid-tempo tracks. The standout track of the album is Sylvester’s cover of "Ooo Baby Baby", which was written and originally performed by Smokey Robinson.
Fuqua’s ill-conceived notions about image and career path aside, Sylvester enjoyed recording ballads. He did, however, realize that his most devoted following was based in the worldwide community of disco dancers. Sylvester aspired to combine the commercial with the artistic; he wanted to record a disco interpretation of Freda Payne’s "Band of Gold". This idea never saw the light-of-day at Fantasy Records. Fuqua’s reservations about Sylvester’s musical output were no doubt enhanced by the style- changing trends occurring in music at the time. Disco was experiencing a major backlash primarily among middle-class white Americans. Artists such as Lipps Inc., KC & the Sunshine Band, Odyssey and the Village People were being blacklisted from U.S radio; chants like "Disco Sucks!" and the more notorious "Disco’s Dead!" permeated the airwaves. To his credit, much of Sylvester’s fan base was still largely confined to the gay community and gays still constituted the most loyal backbone of support for disco.
In search of more artistic freedom, Sylvester left Fantasy and signed to Megatone, the label formed by his friend Patrick Cowley and another revered disco producer, Marty Blecman. Sylvester and Cowley immediately rekindled their creative partnership despite Cowley’s failing health. Their initial Megatone collaboration resulted in the single "Do You Wanna Funk", which became another defining hit for Sylvester. "Do You Wanna Funk" was the leadoff single from "All I Need," Sylvester’s first Megatone album, which was released in 1982. Regrettably, Cowley died shortly after the release of this album at the age of 32, the first celebrity death from AIDS.
Sylvester’s newfound artistic freedom at Megatone appealed to his friends at Fantasy as well. Izora Rhodes, Martha Wash, James Wirrick and Jeannie Tracy all joined Sylvester at Megatone in short order. In 1984, Sylvester released two more full-lengths for Megatone, "Call Me" and "M-1015". "Call Me" contained Sylvester’s proposed cover of "Band of Gold", as well as a cover of "One Night Only", originally from "Dreamgirls". "M- 1015" contained Sylvester’s cover of "Lovin’ Is Really My Game", which was originally performed by the group Brainstorm.
After the fire of "M-1015" had cooled, Sylvester immediately went to work conceiving his next album. This time around, Sylvester and Megatone spared no expense, as they primed the forthcoming album for major label release. Warner Bros. expressed interest in licensing Sylvester’s album early on and won out over the competition, A&M.
His next album, "Mutual Attraction" would be licensed to Warner Bros., though it still carried a Megatone imprint. Coinciding with the imminent release of Sylvester’s major label debut was some outstanding backup sessions work. Sylvester, along with Jeannie Tracy, was invited by producer Narada Michael Walden to sing backup on Aretha Franklin’s 1985 album, "Who’s Zoomin’ Who". He and Tracy can distinctly be heard on "Freeway Of Love", among other songs
"Mutual Attraction" was released to thundering acclaim in 1987. The lead-off single "Someone Like You" was an immediate club hit and did well on urban radio stations. Additionally, Sylvester received more mainstream media attention than he’d received in all his years recording; he appeared on the "Tonight Show", at that time being hosted by Joan Rivers. It is on this show that the outgoing Sylvester publicly proclaimed the love of his life, Rick.
Regrettably, Sylvester’s life was soon to be claimed by the same scourge that took his friend Patrick Cowley years before. On December 16, 1988, Sylvester James succumbed to AIDS-related complications at the age of 41. Despite his untimely passing, Sylvester’s spirit lives on in a new generation of musicians, gay and straight. Indeed, Sylvester’s recordings have reached a wider audience since his passing. Like disco, the genre in which he was such a quintessential figure, Sylvester has found new life on today’s dance floors. Sylvester’s signature song, "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" has been covered several times throughout the years, most notably by the former lead singer of Bronski Beat, Jimmy Somerville in 1989, actress/comedienne Sandra Bernhard and by garage/house vocalist Byron Stingily, formerly of Ten City, in 1998.
In 2000, a musical titled, "Mighty Real: A Tribute To Sylvester" was conceived and performed by a Minneapolis performance artist named Djola Branner. Branner portrayed Sylvester and an accompanying full-length recording of the music performed in the musical is available. It is in Sylvester’s untimely passing that the most distinct parallels between his life and that of disco music become most apparent. Like disco, Sylvester’s roots ultimately reside in soul; like disco, Sylvester embodied a synthesis of Black and gay culture; and like disco, Sylvester’s legacy lives on in house music. And, for the record, March 11, 1979 is still Sylvester day.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Austen, Jake. "Sylvester." Roctober Magazine 19, (1997). Jones, Alan; Kantonen, Jussi. Saturday Night Forever: The Story Of Disco. Chicago: A Capella Books, 2000. Brewster, Bill; Broughton. Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History Of The Disco Jockey. New York: Grove Press, 2000. Walters, Barry. Two Tons: Martha Wash & Izora Armstead "Get The Feeling" (CD liner notes) Fantasy Records, Berkeley: Fantasy Records, 1993.
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